When you realize you’re in a place that defies expectation, it’s generally not in the airport. Yet, we were hit with the first clue when we spotted the hotel’s van, covered by a graphic of a mama and her baby grizzlies. Its driver, whose smiling countenance is broadly chiseled with Native features, provides the first of many welcomes as she loads our gear. “The mountains are to the east, ” says Claudia, and so they are. “When I lived Outside, I never knew where I was. Now that I’m back, I always know where I am if I just look for them.” Outside, she explains, is the Lower 48, where cheechakos like us live. We’re gingerly entering the Last Frontier on our first day, and Anchorage is our gateway.
Because we don’t pick up our car until tomorrow, we’re glad to know our hotel is on a trolley stop for downtown and the Anchorage Market & Festival. We’re told that there are 30,000 visitors to this event every weekend – about 10% of the city’s population must be there. Tents populated with artisans, food vendors, furriers, growers, photographers and entertainers, the festival’s a great opportunity to acclimate and people watch. More than 300 vendors compete with live entertainment at this free admission venue.
The Market’s downtown location is close to Fourth Avenue, where galleries and Saturday concerts continue the lively mood. We are delighted by words we see and hear: ulu, oomingmak, qiviut, chugach, qargi. Anything with a date or a plaque on it merits more than a look-see, so I do my famous Little Match Girl move and peer into each window of the Historic Anchorage Hotel on the way. The flowers in its hanging baskets are enormous. In fact, the flowers everywhere are huge. “Well, duh, so would yours be,” I say to myself, “if they had 24 hours of sunlight in which to thrive.”
Concurrent with the Market, a series of summer festivals celebrates the long daylight hours. This weekend there’s Galway Days, with Irish entertainment. We pause in front of the statue of Balto, the famous sled dog, at Fourth Avenue and D Street, at one of the oldest buildings in the city – the Wendler, with a corner turret. The jangle of carriage bells adds to the ambiance, and we look up as these sturdy, handsome beauties pass. Other great ways to get around: bicycles, Segway – looked like fun! – and of course in winter, the proverbial dogsled.
We duck into the Pioneer Bar – nondescript on the outside, but the sign says since 1916, ‘home of the almost perfect bartenders.’ And she is – providing us with a list of places to eat on the cheap on the back of a guest check: Humpy’s, F Street, Darwin’s Theory. We had hit pay dirt. Within 20 minutes we’ve got more on the back of a napkin from two new friends: a party invite on 08/08/08 to benefit the arts community, and a map to a “secret” blueberry patch off the Denali Highway, by Talkeetna, the town that some say is the model for “Northern Exposure.”
I swear, my husband is the only person in the world who could find someone who is 1) knowledgeable, and 2) interested in debating the merits of berry-picking and blueberry scoops within an hour’s arrival somewhere. It’s a good thing I know to look for the mountains, so I know where I am. “Welcome to Alaska.”